Blogging at the NYTimes last week, Princeton French prof Christy Wampole, assailing the hipster mentality, suggested that our culture needs to move beyond irony.
Moving away from the ironic involves saying what you mean, meaning what you say and considering seriousness and forthrightness as expressive possibilities, despite the inherent risks. It means undertaking the cultivation of sincerity, humility and self-effacement, and demoting the frivolous and the kitschy on our collective scale of values. It might also consist of an honest self-inventory.
Then, at Hyperallergic, Kyle Chayka suggested that irony is, in fact, a good thing, especially for art.
[I]rony is a less direct, more complex method of communication than superficial honesty or transparency might prove to be. But there’s a responsibility and a weight to that complexity and the choice to use it, and that weight, its particular emotional spin, can sometimes prove useful, in life as well as in art.
He cites Warhol’s Marilyn, Richard Artschwager, and recent paintings by Amy Feldman and Tatiana Berg as examples of how artists are making complex, slippery statements that may be both sincere and ironic at once.
I guess I no longer understand the line between irony and non-irony, between sincerity and sarcasm. Maybe instead, it’s just an aesthetic continuum, where sincerity can continue to have its lofty perch at one end of the spectrum and the blackest of morbid humor can anchor the other? It would be more fun that way.
When he mentions “the blackest of morbid humor” Chayka is getting at an important idea. Artists who amuse themselves and their audiences are not necessarily engaging in irony, although that may be a component. Instead of using the blanket term “irony” then, we should (if compelled to attach a label) start thinking more specifically about the type of humor, and combinations thereof, that artists are deploying. The label “ironic” flattens the dialog, draining the work of richness and complexity. Some other categories to consider: slapstick, whimsy, dirty, droll, morbid, deadpan, farce, caustic, self-deprecation, satire, parody, sophomoric…
BONUS VIDEO: Art21 did an episode on Humor in 2003. Here’s a video by Charles Atlas that they used in the intro, featuring comedian Margaret Cho explaining Aristotle’s
“Theory of the Four Humors.”
Image at top: Norman Rockwell (American, 1894–1978). The Tattoo Artist, 1944. Oil on canvas, 43 1/8 x 33 1/8 in. (109.5 x 84.1 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of the artist, 69.8
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